There is no one-size-fits-all method for dealing with grief. But for Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand), she would appear to be in the stages of anger/depression. It’s been roughly seven months since she lost her daughter, a victim of a rape murder. Believing that her town and the local law enforcement is doing nothing to solve the crime, she decides to bring heavy attention to the tragedy by buying Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri that say blunt things like “Raped while dying”, “And still no arrests”, and “How come, Chief Willoughby?
The salvo has been launched, rattling the debilitating-in-health the Chief (Woody Harrelson), and the anger-filled officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell). But instead of building awareness and inspiring action, Mildred’s actions seem to drive most, if not all, of the townsfolk against her. Is this case ever going to solved, or will in-town fighting prove to be a hindrance in cooperation?
This is nothing new, but every now and then there’s really a film that I can mull over for a while, re-watch again, and still struggle to gather how exactly I feel about it. The latest one to make yours truly feel this way is Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, both a drama and black comedy that maybe doesn’t coalesce as intended, but features some great cast work and overall unpredictability.
Though there’s a mystery aspect at play in the film with who killed Mildred’s daughter, that aspect is the least of writer/director McDonough’s (Seven Psychopaths, In Bruges) concerns; in fact, it only appears in earnest during the middle and the end. The effects of it on various individuals in Ebbing and how they deal with it are the core of TBOEM, whether by anger, apathy, sadness, or some combination. In short, what McDonagh has concocted here is a character study of sorts with two, arguably three, main characters. The level of enjoyment one garners from Three Billboards will likely come down to how much one enjoys spending time with these characters.
On the nobility side of things, these characters are, undoubtedly, the worst of the worst seen in the entire 2017 year. There’s something undoubtedly captivating, cool, and ballsy about this. Not to mention funny, as there are a few scenes and moments that register high on the dark humor scale. The characters’ general lack of civility can be humorous, but is also a bit of a double-edged sword, mainly later on in the movie.
As the movie transitions more into drama and full-on character redemption, it becomes hard to forget the nastiness that McDonagh wasted no time in going deep into at the beginning. A soliloquy in the form of letters do serve to give some solid context, but it doesn’t absolve all sins, making the arcs feel unearned. Above all, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri seems to struggle with wanting to be a realistic look at small-town Midwest life in the ups and downs in 2017 and an over-the-top dark romp, never completely balancing the two. The dialogue can be shocking, not in a “Wow, that was very mean” way, but in more of a “Would any sane person really talk like that?” way. A line in a flashback in which Mildred states that she hopes her daughter gets raped is a prime example. Instances like this and even the idea of an Australian beauty such as Abbie Cornish (in full Aussie natural accent!) being married to Harrison’s basic town sheriff in boonie Ebbing makes for an oddity that is neither funny nor purpose-serving to the story.
There are aforementioned issues, but a talented cast keeps things afloat. Supporting characters played by Caleb Landry Jones, Lucas Hedges, Peter Dinklage, and Abbie Cornish are more afterthoughts, though contribute steady performances. The movie belongs to Harrelson, Rockwell, and McDormand. At risk of being the forgotten man, Harrelson is truly the fulcrum of much of the movie, carrying it in a sense. But, it’s Rockwell and McDormand who are getting most of the praise and deserving so. Rockwell has a magnetic presence even when covered in complete dirt and slime, and McDormand carries a dogged persona from her talk to her walk and even the way her face seems to carry the same “tired with everything” feeling throughout. I’m totally underselling her work; she’s super impressive in this movie.
A game cast and some surprising moments make Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri at least worth a viewing stop in this boonie town. An extended stay? Depends on one’s tolerance for its inhabitants.
Photo credits go to cinemavine.com, westword.com, and baltimoreblack.com.
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